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The Battle for Election Integrity Heats Up in Southern States Ahead of Midterms

Voting rights groups have filed lawsuits, and activists are urging more people to rise up and demand voter protections.

Two voters wait in line at the Rangedale Community Building during the presidential primary in Selma, Alabama, on March 3, 2020.

Activists fighting against a new Jim Crow and one-party politics in Southern states are sounding the alarm about the biggest threat facing U.S. democracy. Unfair election maps are bound to produce unfair results in the upcoming midterm elections with long-lasting negative impacts throughout the South. For example, the redistricting happening in Mississippi and Alabama not only disenfranchises large numbers of Black voters, but also advances the same kind of divisive politics we see in Washington these days.

“When we draw political districts that unfairly disadvantage communities based on race, then we produce districts where candidates have to run to extremes because there is no need to compromise,” said Evan Milligan, executive director of Alabama Forward, a coalition of 30+ organizations working to build voter power, especially among young people of color.

Because candidates don’t have to appeal to so many different types of voters, Milligan said that they focus on shoring up their base within one community. Working-class Black voters are now packed into one congressional district and white voters are concentrated into six of Alabama’s other gerrymandered districts.

“If you make it out of your primary because your district is drawn in a way that disadvantages competition, then the most extreme candidate becomes the person who gets on the ballot. That is what is driving our political discourse today and it’s going to drive us off a cliff,” Milligan said.

Civil rights plaintiffs like the NAACP, Common Cause and League of Women Voters have filed lawsuits challenging newly adopted redistricting plans in 12 Southern states. Gerrymandering is at the heart of them all.

In Alabama, a three-judge panel found the maps approved by the legislature to be discriminatory and ordered the state to redraw congressional districts so Black voters would have a second opportunity district with at least a 50 percent minority voting-age population. “They had many ways they could have done that but they chose not to do any of them,” Milligan said.

The Supreme Court will hear Merrill v. Milligan today. “The other plaintiffs and I — allies from Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, the Carolinas, Florida — are all here,” Milligan told Truthout. “We are going to have a rally on Tuesday and numerous public outreach events, including speaking with media to tell our stories, to invite people to think about the gravity of this moment. My hope is not based on the courts. My hope is based on the agency of my people and our allies.”

Regardless of the outcome of midterm elections or how the Supreme Court rules on Merrill v. Milligan, activists are beginning to use the phrase “one demand, two options.” It means permanent voting rights protection for all Americans either by a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution or the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

“One demand, two options — that’s a nonviolent path away from this momentum towards going off the edge. That’s something we can place our hope in,” Milligan said.

Heading Into the Midterms

Milligan’s role at Alabama Forward is developing the next generation of civil rights leaders. “If we want people to be leaders, we have to actually incentivize those people who are leaders to continue doing the work,” he said. Milligan said he knows plenty of good young candidates who can’t win office because of the discrimination they face. He also noted there are lots of barriers in Alabama to keep people disengaged from politics.

The minimum wage of $7.25/hr. is still the norm in Alabama. The state’s income tax starts below the poverty level, earlier than any other state in the country. Food and medicine are taxed in Alabama, and the state did not expand Medicaid for its low-income residents. Milligan said that families are under enormous pressure just to make ends meet.

So, when organizers urge people to get out and vote to make things change, they are likely to respond, “‘How? I have a shift job and only get a half hour for lunch,’” Milligan said. “When people aren’t getting their needs met, there is little incentive to buy into the political process, so they stay home. So, yes, we do have a turnout problem.”

In Florida, Black Voters Matter and Common Cause challenged unfair election maps because Black and Latino election districts were split up. One lawsuit contends the maps obliterated Florida’s 5th Congressional District by spreading its Black population into four congressional districts. Plaintiffs contend that the redistricting eliminates three Democratic seats and transforms two previously competitive districts into Republican-leaning seats.

In another Florida case, Common Cause v. Lee, plaintiffs claim that the new election maps reduce the number of Black opportunity districts from four to two.

“Those cases are still being fought in state and federal courts,” said Kira Romero-Craft, director of legal strategy for Demos, a “think-and-do-tank” for inclusive voting rights. In March, civil rights groups won a lawsuit against Florida’s anti-voter law, SB 90. The law “scaled back all of the advances that Florida has made in light of the pandemic that were used primarily by voters of color for the first time … primarily drop boxes,” Romero-Craft told Truthout.

SB 90 essentially made it a crime to offer water or food to voters waiting to vote. Another new law aimed at signature gatherers required them to give voters a disclaimer telling them their registration forms may not be processed in time. That had a chilling effect on registration efforts, so civil rights groups sued in 2021.

It took a year, but in a recent 288-page opinion, the federal court in the northern district of Florida found for the plaintiffs on most of their claims.

“It was really remarkable given that in this state, the legislature and the governor have been activist, meaning they are going after anyone who is challenging the system or the legislature,” Romero-Craft said.

In November 2018, Florida voters passed Amendment 4, restoring the vote to those with felony convictions. One-and-a-half million people were affected by the measure, but the state legislature made these newly enfranchised voters pay back fines and court fees before they could vote. Many were simply priced out of the ballot box. Apparently, a handful voted without paying what amounts to a poll tax. In August 2022, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced 20 prosecutions for “voter fraud.”

“This is now being used again as a way to chill voters and voters who may have been impacted by a criminal conviction,” Romero-Craft told Truthout. “This is a system that has been historically used in this country to disenfranchise voters, particularly Black voters, and it is being used again to keep voters from exercising the franchise.”

Meanwhile, Republican-aligned groups in Georgia challenged more than 65,000 voter registrations across eight counties. In Michigan, the right-wing Election Integrity Fund challenged 22,000 absentee ballots for the state’s August primary. In Harris County, Texas, Houston election officials received 116 affidavits challenging the eligibility of 6,000 voters. Election officials rejected most of the claims. Some had bad information and many had identical wording.

Voter suppression has effects far beyond the states where it takes place.

Republicans Won’t Stop Playing Dirty

Election deniers continue to assert that Donald Trump was cheated out of a victory in 2020. In fact, election results show that a big turnout among nonwhite voters in 2020 put Joe Biden in the White House.

“The reality is that what happens in the South impacts the entire country. The cases we bring on behalf of disenfranchised communities really can show the power of partisan groups that use the democratic system to take advantage,” Romero-Craft said.

For example, afraid their candidates couldn’t win a fair election, Republicans closed down 1,688 polling stations between 2012 and 2018 in 13 states once covered by the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act, which required Department of Justice approval for all changes related to voting. Fewer polling stations makes casting a vote harder for many people, including those with disabilities and those who don’t drive.

Earlier this year, Lincoln County, Georgia, tried to shut down all but one of its polling locations. Only one-third of voters in that county own a car and fewer polling places mean longer travel times and longer lines waiting to vote.

One study found that the small number of polling places prevented between 54,000 and 85,000 Georgia voters from casting ballots in the 2018 election. Researchers also found Black voters were 20 percent more likely than white voters to miss an election because of poll closures. This problem could be challenged after an election, but those legal cases can be expensive and hard to win.

“Many of the battles that we are fighting right now are the same battles we’ve fought in the past,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, acting director for the Voting Rights Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. He said the scope and scale of those fights have changed since the 2020 election.

“We are now living with a political system in which a very large percentage of our electorate has bought into lies about our democracy, lies about what happened in the 2020 election, and lies about the fraud that they claim is rampant within our electoral system — and those lies have had a real impact,” Morales-Doyle said.

Election deniers made specific claims. “The fraud was happening where? In Milwaukee, in Detroit, in Philadelphia, in Atlanta — in majority-minority cities, that’s where the fraud was supposedly taking place. And those were the votes they wanted thrown out,” he said.

But there weren’t any piles of illegal votes in those cities any more than there were 11,780 uncounted votes in Georgia that Trump ordered Georgia’s secretary of state to find in order to hand him a victory over Biden. Moreover, many of the lies Trump supporters believe are repeated frequently in the halls of Congress.

The Brennan Center has been tracking anti-voter legislation in every state. One out of three restrictive voter laws passed in the last decade were passed in 2021, and election deniers introduced many of them.

“This is not just a story about partisan politics. It’s not just a story about disinformation. This is a story about race as it has always been in this country,” Morales-Doyle told Truthout.

Red states have passed racially discriminatory election rules specifically to block voters of color from exercising the political power they demonstrated in 2020. “The restrictions are aimed at the methods of voting that those folks were using,” he said.

The Brennan Center has noticed a new trend. In 2021, a number of Republican-controlled legislatures passed election interference laws making it easier for them to call into question election outcomes they don’t like.

“We’re seeing election deniers running for office as election officials, and we’re seeing election deniers being recruited to be poll workers and to be poll watchers,” Morales-Doyle said.

The Brennan Center has published an election guide that shows the safeguards in place to prevent rogue poll workers from causing major disruption to elections. “Every state has these in place,” he said.

Election denial, racial discrimination, voter suppression — these are the hallmarks of an authoritarian cloud Trump has cast over the American landscape that threatens our collective future. In November, the Democrats will likely lose five seats in the House, according to FiveThirtyEight political analyst Nate Silver. But he’s been wrong before.